No really, we’ll believe it when we see it. It’s not that Mitch McConnell doesn’t make a good case for rules changes to limit Senate debate on confirming presidential nominees to a much smaller amount of time. In fact, McConnell has been making that argument for two years, during which time Democrats escalated obstruction to historic levels:
Across the first two years of each of the six presidents preceding President Trump, the Senate only had to hold 24 total cloture votes on nominations. That’s the once-rare procedural step that unlocks an up-or-down confirmation vote even though a minority has sought to block it.
And in President Trump’s first two years? We had to hold a stunning 128 cloture votes to advance nominations. Our Democratic colleagues made the Senate jump over five times as many hurdles as in the equivalent periods in the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations combined.
It’s good to have that data under one’s belt for this debate, perhaps, but wouldn’t it have been better to act to prevent some of that obstruction? Of course, but in fairness, McConnell had a wafer-thin majority throughout most of that period, thanks in part to the Roy Moore debacle that was created by appointing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Any such rule change would have had to get past Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker.
Now, McConnell has a 53-vote majority and no longer has to deal with Flake and Corker. It still calls into question why McConnell has waited until April to deal with this rather than just commit the rule change at the beginning of the session, when it would have been easier to do so with a simple majority. This time, though, McConnell says he’s serious about getting the rule changed:
Our proposal would only reduce the time a minority can keep delaying lower-tier nominations after a majority has invoked cloture. This would keep the Senate floor moving, saving time that is currently tied up in inoffensive nominations that senators don’t even really debate. And, at last, it would let President Trump fill important vacancies at a more reasonable pace.
Democrats overwhelmingly supported changes like these in 2013 when they helped President Obama. And privately, many of our Democratic colleagues tell us they’d be happy to support this new proposal, too — as long as we postpone its effective date until January 2021, when they hope there will be a Democrat occupying the White House.
Give me a break. A rules change is either a good idea or it isn’t. The answer cannot depend on whether you like the current occupant of the White House. Simple fairness dictates that there cannot be protections in place for Democratic administrations past and future that magically skip over Republican presidents. And this is especially true under the current extraordinary circumstances Senate Democrats have created.
All true, but it misses the best argument. Current rules call for thirty hours of debate on each nominee after cloture is invoked. In the past, almost all of that debate time was waived in almost all cases, but times have changed, in part because the Democrats’ rule change in 2013 eliminated the filibuster that prevented cloture from being invoked. Despite all of the machinations, no one has yet explained what benefit derives from thirty hours of debate on nominees that are quotidian in most cases. Even for controversial or unusual nominees, though, it’s a wildly excessive amount of time for debate when all members have likely made up their minds weeks prior to the vote on whether to support or confirm nominees.
We don’t need thirty hours of Kabuki theater for each nominee; we don’t need eight hours of Kabuki theater, either. Two hours would be sufficient for both parties to get arguments and objections in the record before a floor vote. The only possible argument against such a common-sense limit would be that it gives the Senate a lot of extra legislative hours to do more offensive things to life, liberty, and property, but that’s a risk we unfortunately already have.